BrightSource Cancels Hidden Hills, But Threats Loom

The Pahrump Valley, a vast stretch of creosote, yucca and Joshua tree that unfolds as you descend from the Spring Mountains, remains the target of extensive development proposals despite a recent decision to terminate a solar power tower project here.  BrightSource Energy this week cancelled its proposal to build the destructive Hidden Hills solar power tower project on the California side of the Pahrump Valley.  The project would have replaced desert habitat with nearly 5 square miles of giant heliostat mirrors and two 750-tall towers that would have burned birds and insects, as is the case with the Ivanpah Solar and Crescent Dunes power tower projects.  Hidden Hills also would have pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater over its construction and operational lifetime from an already-overdrafted basin, threatening wildlife that depend on nearby natural springs.  So it is indeed a relief that the project has been withdrawn.

The Spring Mountains in the distance are the most dominant feature of this mostly intact desert valley.  It would be nice to avoid further human competition with this beautiful landscape, including 750-tall power towers.
Towers May Still Loom on the Horizon

In comments to KCET writer Chris Clarke, BrightSource indicated that it may submit a new application with an energy storage capability.  The company probably would face an uphill battle with such an application on the California side of the Pahrump Valley because Inyo County has implemented a new land use plan that prohibits solar power tower projects.  Both the Inyo County plan and the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan would allow large-scale photovoltaic projects on the California side of the border, although there are no imminent plans for such projects.

However, BrightSource does have a dormant proposal to use thousands of acres of public lands on the Nevada side of the Pahrump Valley, according to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) records.  The company submitted a $75,000 fee to the BLM in 2012 essentially staking claim to these public lands.  The company could use this Nevada parcel to build its renewed solar power tower application with energy storage once it submits plans and goes through environmental review.  According to the BLM's draft Resource Management Plan amendment for the southern Nevada area, the BrightSource parcel would be in an area where the BLM would still consider solar applications.

A BLM photo submitted to the California Energy Commission shows evidence of subsidence in the Pahrump Valley - the land lowering significantly as a result of groundwater pumping for agricultural and residential purposes.
Other solar company applications also target the Pahrump Valley.  Abengoa has plans for a solar power tower project on the Nevada side of the Pahrump Valley; its BLM application has been dormant since last year.  Abengoa also has submitted a plan of development for a concentrating solar trough project, and two other companies have eyed the Pahrump Valley for photovoltaic projects.  Even if a couple of these projects were built, habitat in the area would be significantly fragmented and natural springs likely jeopardized.

Transmission a Key Constraint

However, any large-scale projects here likely will require progress in the Valley Electric Association's (VEA) proposal to build a new transmission line connecting the Pahrump Valley to the El Dorado substation over 50 miles away near Searchlight.  The BLM had begun an environmental review for the project, although it appears it has since stalled with the suspension and now cancellation of the Hidden Hills solar project.  Either way, a new power plant in the Pahrump Valley will also need to ensure the success of this transmission line application and a power purchase agreement with a California utility.  The VEA, although based in Nevada, is part of the California transmission grid. 

The necessity of the transmission line underscores the absurdity of such remote, utility-scale solar projects.  Smaller photovoltaic projects on rooftops or over parking lots could feed clean energy to the nearby town of Pahrump, or the city of Las Vegas.  But instead, developers would scrape clean thousands of acres of desert to ship energy across hundreds of miles of transmission lines to reach customers in faraway Los Angeles or San Francisco.  We are a long way off from sanity in how we generate and consume energy, and the Pahrump Valley can still look a lot different if corporations get their way.  BrightSource's withdrawal of the Hidden Hills application is a welcome relief for conservationists and advocates for responsible renewable energy, but there will be more battles ahead in our effort to protect public lands and open space in the Pahrump Valley from unnecessary destruction.


  1. I followed the progress until it sort of faded away. It's good to hear the project is dead. #40 Nopah Range Wilderness and #46 Pahrump Valley Wilderness would have been on either side of the plant if it went thru. What good is it for Congress to approve the Desert Preservation Act then change it. Please, let's change out the creeps in Congress in 2016.

    I've come to the conclusion that the American people are being duped. Wind and solar are being developed in locations without current infrastructure. Installing electricity and transmission is where development will occur - all along the transmission routes. Next will come the housing developers.

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